Review of American Civil War Center

I am planning to drive down tomorrow to Richmond to see the new Civil War museum with my wife.  The few reviews that I’ve read thus far seem to suggest that the museum does in fact offer something entirely different for the Civil War enthusiast and for those that will be introduced to the war for the first time.  Andrew Ferguson’s review of the museum in the Wall Street Journal is worth reading.  Here are a few passages:

"Heritage tourism" has become a moneymaker in states like Virginia. The $13 million center, housed in a restored Civil War-era gun foundry on the banks of the James River, will surely bring in folks from the commonwealth and beyond. But Mr. Wise cradles grander ambitions. He wants to do something here that hasn’t been done adequately in other Civil War museums — to give due credit to the war itself as a war of ideas. 

Anyone who has slogged through contemporary museums will see how radical Mr. Wise’s ambition is. Notwithstanding the success of heritage tourism, these are difficult times for history museums. As attendance flatlines or falls, curators have forced themselves to compete with theme parks and TV for the attention of tourists and locals alike. Many museums are tricked out in an aesthetic borrowed from Best Buy: cavernous spaces jumping with video screens and echoing with disembodied voices from hidden speakers, a riot of sound and color in which the transmission of knowledge takes a secondary role to the task of keeping busloads of schoolchildren entertained, through exhibits that are — charmed words! — "immersive" and "interactive."

Whether we like it or not Wise’s "grander ambitions" may end up being dictated by the all-mighty dollar.  As Ferguson points out, attendance is down at many museums which puts site managers in a position of having to "sex-up" the place.  The relationship between education and entertainment need not necessarily be in conflict as long as Wise and others do not take their focus off of educational programs geared to school kids as well as more knowledgeable visitors.  Last year I spent a few hours at the new Constitution Center in Philadelphia while attending the AHA and I was blown away by the ways in which technology is used.  It is geared to school kids and is both highly entertaining and incredibly informative. The creative use of technology can not only enhance the historical content, but introduce it in a way that is more likely to bring about serious critical reflection following the visit.

The displays are organized around the three main ideas over which — according to Mr. Wise and his historians — the war was fought: "Union," whose preservation inspired the North; "Home," whose defense motivated the Confederacy; and "Liberty," the goal for both North and South but also for the African-American slaves and freedmen.

If the tripartite scheme sounds artificial on the page, it’s seamless in the execution. The center is a model of curatorial taste, judgment and skill. Among Civil War buffs, the emphasis on the African-American experience has caused the most comment, but even more striking is the evenhandedness with which the three perspectives — North, Confederate and African-American — are explained.

I would actually like to see evidence of any concerns surrounding the African-American theme from those who have actually visited the museum.  My hope is that the emphasis on the black experience will in fact bring more African Americans to the museum and to a point where they can appreciate that the Civil War is as much their war as it is the descendants of "Johnny Reb" and "Billy Yank."  In fact, if we ever get to the point where we see the war as the death blow to slavery than the black experience will be indispensable to understanding why. 

That’s it for now.  Hopefully I will have a review of the museum up some time next week.

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